Businesses and some limited religious gatherings will be open in Howard County starting this Friday.
Howard County Executive Calvin Ball announced the easing of restrictions Tuesday during a briefing with reporters.
Ball made his announcement in advance of a rally called by Reopen Howard County to demand that shutdown rules be eased or eliminated.
“While we are pleased with the progress we are seeing, we must not become complacent as we enter new phases of reopening,” Ball said. “As we begin to lift restrictions, we will continue to keep a close eye on our data, and ease or tighten restrictions as needed.”
Starting at 7 a.m. Friday, retail stores, barber shops and salons will be able to open at 50% capacity. Religious gatherings of up to 250 people will be permitted so long as they take place outside. Indoor religious gatherings will still be limited to a maximum of 10 people.
Ball said he decided to ease restrictions after his county saw a decrease in the rate of new cases, and the use of intensive care beds and ventilators decreased, since May 15.
Ball, however, offered no specifics when asked what data would be used to determine if restrictions should be tightened.
“We’re looking at several metrics not just one metric,” said Ball. “When we look at all those metrics, including things like surge capacity and the amount of (personal protective equipment), we’re going to stay in close contact with our businesses, our workers and our communities to make sure that they have what they need to help people stay safe.”
Gov. Larry Hogan announced nearly two weeks ago that the state could begin to ease some restrictions in the first phase of his reopening plan. Some counties, including Howard County, opted either not to enter phase one or to enter a modified version of the plan.
Ball’s modified plan includes allowing retail shops to open with curbside pickup. Other businesses such as pet grooming and car washes are allowed to open at 50 percent capacity. Religious gatherings are limited to 10 people inside, consistent with current state limiting public gatherings to 10 or fewer people.
“The risk is really exposure (multiplied by) time,” said Howard County Health Officers Maura Rossman. “So if you are indoors for a lengthy period of time as a religious service is, it just increases your risk of exposure, in contrast to retail. We are hoping people are getting in and going out, making their purchases and leaving. So it’s really a risk analysis.”
Since issuing the initial limitations, the county has seen a drop in some key measures tracking how the county is weathering the virus.
“After spiking to 78.8% on May 15, the ICU utilization rate at Howard County General Hospital has fallen or stayed the same for seven of 14 days, and as of May 23 was at its lowest level since April 1,” Ball told reporters. “The ventilator utilization rate for the same time period is 18.6%. The average daily case count, which is expected to rise as testing becomes more available, is down to an average of 27 cases per day after surging to an average of 33 cases for the two-week period that started on April 26th.
“Lastly, Howard County has increased the number of contact tracers from two people when the pandemic started to 35.”
But acute bed usage in that county is at 96%.
“That is a data point that we will continue to use to evaluate but again as Doctor Rossman would indicate, that is one of numerous data points,” said Ball. “So we remain concerned but hopeful.”